Souls Unite

Souls Unite

When we travel we employ the “when in Rome…” method and always try to do what the locals do, so when we arrived in Laos and were told you have to have your souls united we agreed.  For all either of us knew our souls were long lost back at the start of the trip in Vietnam or were still lingering in Bangkok.  In fact neither of us has ever seen any of our 32 souls, the number that Lao people believe each person has.  In order to unite your souls you must participate in a Baci.

Briefly the Baci is a ceremony to celebrate a special event, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, or one of the annual festivals. A mother is given a baci after she has recovered form a birth, the sick are given bacis to facilitate a cure, officials are honored by bacis, travelers are given bacis to unite souls that may still be wondering and novice monks are wished luck with a baci before entering the temple. The Baci ceremony can take place any time and is more commonly referred to as su kwan, which means “calling of the soul”.

The paw kwan prepared for the Baci ceremony

We participated in a Baci in a small village after a day of trekking in Northern Laos.  It was intended to bring our souls back from wherever they were wandering, which I would still like to know where that is, and secure them in place re-establishing equilibrium in the body.  It is an ancient belief in Laos that each person is a union of 32 organs and that the kwan, or souls watch over and protect each one of them.  It is believed that if the souls are not all in place it causes illness, so it is important to have as many kwan kept together in the body at all times.  I would argue that some kwan are more important than others, I would prefer that the kwan that watches over the heart, liver and kidney organs not wander too far.

The baci ceremony and the steps leading to it:

The ceremony is performed by a village elder, preferably an ex-monk whom officiates the ceremony, does the chanting and calls the kwan to return to their respective owners.  The officiant is referred to as the maw pawn.

The Baci Ceremony in a small village in Northern Laos where stayed.

Tdung pah kwan or the making of the pah kwan:

This task of preparing and setting up the pah kwan or flower trays for the ceremony is often shared by elderly women in the community.  In our case the hostess of our homestay did most of the preparation, which included the sacrificing of a chicken to feed to the kwan.

The sacrificial chicken to feed our souls

Somma or paying respect to the elders:

Before the ceremony actually begins, the younger people pay respect to the elders, which was a simple bow to the officiant and village elders.

Keunt pah kwan or introduction of the ceremony:

Everyone touches the pah kwan as the moh pohn chants Buddhist mantra.

Pitee hiek kwan or the calling of the kwan:

The maw pawn calls upon the wandering kwan to return and inhabit the body.

Pook kwan or the tying of kwan:

When the maw pawn finishes his chanting, he places the symbolic food (in our case the symbolic food was chips, which made thinkCHUA very happy) into the upturned hand of the  participants. The maw pawn then takes the cotton thread from the pha kwan and wraps it around the extended wrist, tying it there. While securing it with a few knots, he chants a shorter version of the invocation strengthening the power of the blessings.

Me with the cotton threads tied to my wrists, you wear them all for five days and then you keep three threads on until they fall off. I am still wearing my three cotton threads.

Song pah kwan or the closing of the ceremony:

Once the pook kwan is over, everyone touches the pah kwan again as a way to conclude the ceremony.

Sharing of a meal:

After the ceremony, everyone shares a meal as a member of the community.

The dinner following the baci ceremony was delicious and the food was plentiful


1. Bring money, specifically crisp new 1,000 kip bills to offer on the alter to coax your souls back from their wandering (in case the chicken was not enough) and more than that as a “thank you” to the officiant of your baci ceremony since they had to kill a prized chicken, which is not cheap for them.

2. Don’t point your feet at anyone, this is very important during the ceremony as it is considered extremely rude.  If you are a man you can sit cross-legged, but as a woman you must sit with your feet underneath you.

3. Don’t refuse the whiskey, it is considered rude to turn down the home-made rice whiskey and it is used as a symbol of purification.

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» Mom A :
Mar 30, 2011

Keeping track of all of the different kinds of kwan much less making sure all 32 souls are back might make the whiskey welcome at the end! How interesting! Now how do you feel?

LOCAVORista Reply:

Mom, I can’t imagine trying to keep track of all my souls I would like to imagine that they are all off enjoying their own adventures, but I think it is good to call them together every once in awhile- maybe that’s why I haven’t been sick yet on this trip. I feel good about having all my souls back at least for the time being.

» dad :
Mar 31, 2011

the wonderful cotton threads i received from the monks in Thailand broke and fell off about 2 months ago after 2 years of 24/7……am afraid some of the kwan may have been lost as well……..great stuff …… thinking that gathering up the 32 souls, may be like herding cats…….be safe… dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, I plan to wear my white threads as long as they will stay on. It’s more than just keeping the souls together it’s a great memory and a wonderful reminder that everyone sees things differently- an important lesson on the road.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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